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ALTERNATE ROUTES: Using Short Films to Develop Your Stories

Marty Lang shares examples of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films.

Marty Lang shares examples of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films.

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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Marty Lang shares examples of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films.

Every now and then, I'm lucky enough to find a movie or television show with a new storytelling voice that blows me away. I had a moment like that last week, when I watched the pilot of the new Showtime series SMILF. The half-hour dramedy, written, directed and produced by lead actress Frankie Shaw (MR. ROBOT), is a hilarious, fearless story about a single mother in South Boston, and her struggles to balance motherhood, family, career and a fulfilling sex life. It really hit me as something with a singular vision.

After digging online, I was surprised to learn that SMILF started as a short film. Shaw also wrote, directed and starred in the short, which tells the story of a single mom trying to have sex with her boyfriend – while her baby sleeps next to them in the same bed. The film won the 2015 Short Film Jury Award at Sundance, which got Showtime's attention, leading to the show. And it all came from Shaw taking matters into her own hands.

“I think make opportunity for yourself, if that’s something you’re inclined to do, for sure,” Shaw said to Variety. “I discovered that my biggest passion was for directing, so in making opportunity for myself, I found what I like doing the best.”

Marty Lang shares examples of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films.

This is just the latest example of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films. You can use a small, single story to explore a world you'd like to tackle in a bigger format, and with a little luck, get the opportunity to create in that format.

Have you ever seen the film SHORT TERM 12? It's a wonderful drama about workers at a residential treatment facility, and how one connects with a troubled teen. It was Brie Larson's breakout role, before her Oscar-winning turn in ROOM. That film started off as a short by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, when he was a senior at San Diego State University's film school. The film won the Short Filmmaking Award at Sundance in 2009, along with Best Short Film honors at CineVegas, Gen Art and the Seattle International Film Festival.

“After the response to the short, it encouraged me to want to explore the foster care world more,” Cretton told the Tribeca Film Festival. “Up to that point, I didn’t really know how universal a lot of the scenes were. So I wrote the expanded screenplay, but it just took a while to get funding.”

After writing a feature version of SHORT TERM 12, the funding eventually came, first by winning a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship in 2010. That gave him the momentum to attract Animal Kingdom Films as a production partner, and the feature version of the film shot in 2012, world premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2013.

Script EXTRA: 7 Critical Tips for Short Film Ideas

If TV is more your speed, SMILF isn't the only example of short films that eventually turned into shows. The behind-the-scenes reality TV drama UnREAL began as a short film called SEQUIN RAZE, by series co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. After being selected for the 2012 AFI Directing Workshop for Women (and running a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $15,000), Shapiro directed the film about an intense interaction between a reality show producer and contestant on the last night of filming the show. The film premiered at South by Southwest in 2013, where it was acquired for series by Lifetime. The pilot was eventually nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, and won a Peabody Award, which was a surprise for Shapiro.

“We were a little bit of an experiment, like Weirdoville,” Shapiro told Entertainment Tonight. (She kept her home in Portland, in case the show failed.) “Someone on our team described it as a punk band paying in a garage. We were by hook or by crook.”

Film School Shorts posted SEQUIN RAZE online, so you can see the specific world it creates, and how perfectly it could be expanded for the small screen. (Fair warning: there's some swearing in it)

Sequin Raze | Film School Shorts from Film School Shorts on Vimeo.

If your goal is working in features, making a short is a time-honored way to do so (see SHORT TERM 12), and it can even get you all the way to the point of winning Academy Awards. Damien Chazelle's brilliant feature WHIPLASH won an Oscar for JK Simmons, and it also began as a short film, with Simmons performing the same role.

But the path of this project began as a feature, not a short. Chazelle had written the feature length version of the film, and had attracted producers like Jason Reitman and Jason Blum to the project. But financiers still could not understand what he wanted to do with the film. So he took the feature script, and chose a scene to shoot as a standalone short film, that would show them his vision.

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“I’ll be honest: I did not want to make a short,” Chazelle wrote in an essay for MovieMaker Magazine. “I’d written WHIPLASH as a feature, and that’s what I wanted to do. But, as it turned out, the producers’ idea was a brilliant one. Not only did it arouse interest in the project that hadn’t existed before, it also allowed me to get my feet wet, to fine-tune what I really wanted this movie to be."

This short was brilliantly edited alongside the feature version of the film by video essayist Jacob Swinney. Take a look at how similar the short and feature versions of WHIPLASH are:

WHIPLASH: From Short to Feature from Jacob T. Swinney on Vimeo.

And believe it or not, a short film could inspire something as big as a theatrical film franchise! That's the plan for the short film RISE, starring the late Anton Yelchin. Writer/Director David Karlak teamed up with producers Johnny Lin and Brian Oliver earlier this year, with the goal of creating multiple films.

“Brian and I are extremely excited to have an opportunity to build a film franchise based on David Karlak’s wildly popular short,” Lin said. “I hope this is the start to a long-lasting financing and producing relationship.”

Here's the short starring Yelchin:

RISE from David Karlak on Vimeo.

All these examples show just how many opportunities short filmmakers can access once their work gets out for people to see. If you're thinking about creating a show or feature film, start by creating something small that can show what you want to do. In the right hands, it could lead to a world of opportunities.

More articles by Marty Lang

Learn about short filmmaking in Screenwriters University's online class,
Creating the Short Film